The Old British Rail Offices Paddington, London
by Derek Williams*
23rd October 1999
Pendulum and loads of other systems
Leaving the safety of Norwich, I go see my squatter friends in their 19 story high rise squat in Hackney. They get the location of the party from their own contact and around midnight or so, we go find a taxi.
We tear across London in a cab driven by an old skool DJ with a pumping sound system who enjoys a smoke of skunk weed. His car has very good breaks and first rate road holding. We get to the Westway motorway and see the building … oh, oh oh.
First, this party is no secret. Its in a very respectable area (London’s “little Venice”), one of the better examples of 60’s architecture it was a pre-privatisation British rail office complex built into the motorway junction on the side of a hill. We enter under the motorway which is on a flyover bridge, push past the barricades (this party isn’t going to be shut down), pay 3 quid “donation” and go in.
Darkness and pounding techno echo around a vast stairwell, a huge spiral staircase which winds up about 5 stories to the first office level. The staircase heaves with people, I go explore.
Essentially three levels of techno, jungle and stuff. The techno level is the best in my opinion, in particular one huge room with a big pumping system with a very nice sound. Something like ten or more systems are kicking off around the place all told.
The main problem is the lack of lights, there was one small strip to light the stairway and the systems had lights of course, but beyond that, we had to live with the light coming in through the windows from the motorway outside.
The other problem is no running water, or toilets, although that didn’t seem to upset anyone. Well, it was a London squat …
The view in the main techno room was breathtaking, a massive room which eventually filled up with a loads of people, the big widows giving a backdrop of the Westway motorway with people dancing in silhouette, I spent a lot of time in here. Although it hadn’t been used for around 10 years or so, the place hadn’t been cleared out, the offices were still furnished and there were huge metal storage cabinets all over the place. In the room with the massive system, people were dancing on these high above the dancefloor and some had already collapsed into a twisted heap of metal.
Actually, I suspect the unstable ones had been collapsed on purpose and the remaining ones were actually quite firm, they didn’t fall over anyway. The rhythm of the people dancing on the metal shelves added a strange quality to the pounding bass of the music, so the sound was all around as you danced, plus it had this echo that you only really get in warehouses and dead office blocks. This is what I like about squats, a quality you just don’t get in sanitised clubs, seriously, the place was alive.
The London parties can have a darkside though, and this one was a bit on the darkish side. Some of the events of that night really did my head in and overshadowed the rest of the party, just a bit.
Sections of the two main floors were offices, once plush 80’s style suspended ceilings, smart window blinds and so on, the rooms too small to use for the party. As the night progressed, the office areas became the places to go for a chill and to have fun in the offices, which of course, didn’t remain plush for very long.
Huge shelving units still full of 80’s style “yuppie” promotional leaflets get pushed over, doors pulled off hinges (the offices were really only made of fibre board walls) and chairs thrown through the suspended ceiling, which fluttered down like confetti. There was a sort of continuous good natured general mayhem and the place got trashed.
But then as a couple of kids were ripping the ceilings down, one kicked out, slipped backwards and smashed through a window – we were several stories above ground level remember – anyway I caught him and pulled him back. aaarrrggghhh, that was close.
Later I find a “body”, still breathing but out to the world lying in a heap of trashed office furniture (I guess deep in a ket hole). There’s no lights of course, so by the flickering light of a ciggy lighter and with help from a couple of others I give him a quick check and roll him into the recovery position.
I find another staircase which leads up to the roof, there are a lot of people up here, then the sound of a big window being smashed and another. I come down.
Later in the darkness a voice says “rocks?” – crack cocaine. You don’t often get that at parties even in London.
In one room the music stops with a flash of sparks as the suspended ceiling collapses, not sure what happened after that.
Daylight comes eventually to show a scene of utter devastation in what was once a very smart building. Walls covered in graffiti, broken glass everywhere, trashed offices. Everyone is off their heads, walking round through the scattered yuppie literature, ceiling tiles and general chaos or else going wild in what was left. London squats have this darkside sometimes, be warned if you’ve never been to one …
A strange thing happened as a result of the trashing of the offices though. The place had been given this makeover sometime in the mid-80’s. Before that it had been some strange kind of British Rail warehouse, which it had suddenly become again, the place had totally changed.
I go back up the staircase – actually a water tower – with some other people this time. The view from the top is mind blowing, the whole of west London laid out like a map, a lot of people up here running around, looking over the edge, shear drops through broken windows. We find a door to the outside and there’s the window cleaning machinery, we resist the temptation to play in the cradle, but I’m sure someone would have done.
Around 9.00am and I’m finished. It’s been a long day (I was in work at 7.30 in the morning!) and the body was saying “sleep”, I had to go, like I say, my head was done right in. The party continued of course, it was still going at 4.00pm when my friends crawled home anyway.
So I leave and suddenly I’m in the real world again, clean people, walls not covered in graff, windows not smashed, reality – it takes a bit of coming to terms with sometimes.
Footnote: By the time the photo’s were taken, a few months later, the place was being gutted and refitted for a new use, nothing of any value was trashed.